Farm drone use 'here to stay,' House panel told

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 23, 2016 - Just days after the Federal Aviation Administration released regulations governing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a House subcommittee heard about the agricultural possibilities of the devices more commonly known as drones.

Witnesses told the panel that farm stakeholders have long been pushing for regulations that would allow for UAV use in a wide variety of applications ranging from crop scouting to damage appraisal.

“There is a certainty that UAV operations are here to stay in the United State, and agriculture can benefit,” Robert Blair, vice president of Agriculture at Measure, a drone solutions company, told the lawmakers. “However, there is still work that needs to be done.”

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Blair said regulations should be tweaked to allow operations beyond an operator's line of sight, and he said there is a need for guidance on how drones can be used to spray crops. He also said the technology will only be used to its fullest capacity when internet infrastructure and connectivity is improved.

In the FAA regulations announced on Tuesday, operations must be completed within line of sight of the operator, and no rules were announced governing potential application or delivery services. Online companies like Amazon have discussed the desire to be able to deliver online orders more quickly using drones.

When asked about what could be on the horizon with the technology, potential applications got even broader. Blair mentioned the possibility of mounted lasers that could deliver pinpointed weed control and disease management. Larry Faleide, president of Satshot, a company that uses satellite imagery in agri-business, said more fiber optic connections and faster internet could help provide instantaneous access to farm data being collected by drones.

A USDA Farm Service Agency contractor also called for additional funding for FSA's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP). The program provides geospatial data for a wide range of government functions and would cost $30 million for full coverage of the lower 48 states, Tim Crago, the vice president of North West Geomatics, a contracting company for NAIP, told the lawmakers.

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But privacy remains a lingering issue with drone use, and FAA didn't really address the matter in the new regulations, instead deferring to state and local privacy laws. The only suggestion witnesses could offer was that a drone user should try to be a good neighbor.

Since privacy matters and even the potential uses of the technology are still literally up in the air, Blair said stakeholders and other drone users would appreciate the help of Congress and federal regulators with making sure drone use can be maximized.

“We need to work harder to getting the word out (about) what this technology can do,” he said.

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